Cloudy
70°
Cloudy
Hi 75° | Lo 51°

School Counselor With a Mission: Norwich’s Dani Liggett Promotes a Safe Place to Learn for All

  • Dani Liggett, a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt. speaks with sixth grader Carlton Berthold in her office on Nov. 21, 2013. Carlton was reading a bad joke to her from her collection of bad joke books. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Dani Liggett, a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt. speaks with sixth grader Carlton Berthold in her office on Nov. 21, 2013. Carlton was reading a bad joke to her from her collection of bad joke books. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dani Liggett, a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt., during an interview in her office on Nov. 21, 2013.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Dani Liggett, a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt., during an interview in her office on Nov. 21, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dani Liggett, a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt. speaks with sixth grader Carlton Berthold in her office on Nov. 21, 2013. Carlton was reading a bad joke to her from her collection of bad joke books. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Dani Liggett, a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt., during an interview in her office on Nov. 21, 2013.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Dani Liggett started her career in counseling in the mid-1970s, which turned out to be perhaps the best moment at which to begin.

In 1975, Congress passed and President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which required that all children be taught in what the law called the “least restrictive setting.” The new law meant that students who had been segregated into “special” classes — a term seldom heard any more — would have access to academic classes with their peers, and that schools had to accommodate them.

“In 1974, it was a revolutionary idea that everybody had a right to education,” said Liggett, who graduated from Boston University that year, and finished a master’s degree in counseling the following year. For the past 17 years, she has been a counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich.

And this year, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Vermont School Counselor Association.

Counseling is essential to any school, and a recent conversation with Liggett in her cubbyhole of an office at Marion Cross confirmed why that’s so. In addition to seeing students in her office, Liggett delivers a school counseling curriculum in classrooms at every grade level, starting with manners and making friends for the youngest children and moving to smoking, drugs, puberty and, lastly, reproduction, in sixth grade. She also directs support groups for families going through divorce or other crises and helps teachers with classroom management.

“Every study will show that to learn, you need to feel safe, you need to feel connected,” Liggett said. Students who don’t feel that way will sit in class with a part of their brains consumed with anxiety, she said.

“Any good school that has kids that are performing well academically … has a strong pro-social component to it,” Liggett said. As they learn, children need to continue to develop self-awareness and the skills to negotiate conflict and competing interests.

Norwich is among the wealthiest towns in Vermont based on household income, but the town’s wealth doesn’t mean it’s problem free.

“We are a place on Earth. We are a place of human beings and we have all that is good and all that is not. It’s here,” Liggett said.

Liggett started work in the Upper Valley in Lebanon schools, where from 1976 to ’78 she worked in a program funded by Dartmouth-Hitchcock and intended to assist students with severe behavioral difficulties. After the funding for the special education job ran out, she became the first school counselor in Chelsea, then went into private practice as a counselor to children and families before going back to a school position, first in the Randolph area, then in Lebanon elementary schools, before starting in Norwich.

At Marion Cross, she is a go-to person for the school’s 326 students. She is the school’s 504 manager, which makes her responsible for rights to accommodations. She helps make sure families in economic distress have food, winter clothes and heat, and that children with working parents can get rides to enrichment activities. She’s the school’s liaison to area mental health providers and serves on an area mental health crisis team. She served, without fanfare, as interim principal for a year, before Bill Hammond was hired. And with 25 years as a critical care paramedic, she also handles the school’s emergency planning.

But talking to students is still the bread and butter of her job. During the interview on Thursday afternoon, Carlton Berthold, 11, stopped in Liggett’s office. Carlton, a well-spoken sixth-grader, visits with Liggett when he needs to take a break from the wider world of his school. He and Liggett have a scale, from one to 10, with 10 being the worst, of where his feelings are.

After talking with Liggett in a neighboring classroom for a few minutes, Carlton accompanied her back into the office, wanting to talk to a reporter about the school counselor.

“She has a lot of strategies that us kids can use to, I guess, like, help us,” Carlton said.

“We’ve known each other for eight years,” Liggett said. “He’s learned a lot about himself.”

Carlton’s mom, Michelle Avila, called Liggett “fantastic.”

“She’s always there for students, parents, everybody that needs her,” Avila said.

Liggett, 61, has made her office a comfortable place for children, with stuffed animals that all have names — including Boris the bear, a handpuppet — hot chocolate and a corner of the windowsill devoted to joke books.

“Ninety percent of the students that I see self-refer,” Liggett said.

In a way, that’s the whole point of her efforts: to teach a child who’s struggling with a personal challenge to get help.

“I don’t say this is what you’re going to do,” Liggett said. “I make them work. I make them plan.”

Counseling has changed since 1974, just as society has changed, Liggett said. People expect more from public schools, and the range of issues schools face has widened.

“I spent a couple of hours today dealing with a cyberbullying incident,” Liggett said. But at the same time, her counsel to parents remains the same, whether the issue is bullying or family struggles: Parents need to stay involved and stay connected with their kids.

Liggett knew from an early age that she would do this sort of work. “I was the student who could negotiate with the school bully, who could include the left-out student,” she said.

She started her career, in keeping with the new law passed at the same time, to help children with mental illness find a seat in the classroom.

“I will tell you that 40 years later, my mission is to make sure that mentally ill kids … I’m going to get teary now, have a place in school.”

“I have had one sort of advocacy mission that I haven’t lost sight of,” she said, “and I’m really proud of that.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.